Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet in conversation with François Albera about “cinema (et) politique” in Paris, March 19, 2001. Originally published as “faucille et marteau, canons, canons, dynamite!” in Hors Champ (special issue, 2001)*. This translation, by Jean-Pierre Bedoyan and George W. Antheil, was published in ‘Die Früchte des Zorns und der Zärtlichkeit’, Viennale, 2004.
JMS: First of all, I have to say that using the “and” conjunction is always bullshit: cinema and history, cinema and literature, cinema and music. All this stuff is like the end of the world, an intellectual failure…
As for political cinema: I don’t really know what it is, I know it less and less and I hope I never will; That’s the first thing.
Secondly – leaving cinema aside – there is no political film without morality, there is no political film without theology, there is no political film without mysticism.
What does that mean? Well, for instance, it means that Anton Webern’s music is more political than Alban Berg’s, that Arnold Schoenberg’s music is more political than Alban Berg’s, than Hanns Eisler’s music is more political than Kurt Weill’s. To mention our most recent experiences, it means that a film such as Fritz Lang’s Fury is much more political than M, contrary to what much of the left said about the rise of Nazism in M and Dr. Mabuse. That may have been interesting for people like Sadoul at a certain point in time but it’s no use repeating it like parrots…
Which means that a film like A King in New York is a great political film.
No political film without morality, no political film without theology, no political film without mysticism.
It also means – if you want to uphold that paradox, more of a provocation than a paradox in fact – that our own three most political films are The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp, The Cronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach and Moses and Aaron.
In Moses and Aaron, for the first time, since until then, aside from a subtitle in Not Reconciled which was: “Only violence helps when violence rules”, we had always refused to let any message whatsoever slip into our films. We destroyed them as we went since we didn’t want to inflict or impose a message onto the viewer: we didn’t feel we had a right to do so. It so happens that thanks to Moses and Aaron, thanks to Schoenberg, suddenly at the end of the film there is a political message which sounds more and more relevant today: “ Whensoever… your gifts had left you to the highest summit, then as a result of that misuse you were and ever shall be hurled back into the wasteland.”
One day, at least fifteen years ago, by chance, we saw an open air screening of two films in Rome, Renoir’s La marseillaise, which is a magnificent film I know very well since I’ve seen it many times, and Griffith’s Orphans of the storm, a film I didn’t know well at all, for I had seen it only once. Well, that night, we suddenly thought that maybe Griffith’s film was politically stronger than Renoir’s. So the strength of a political film has nothing to do with its ideology. Since then, we’ve had the opportunity to see Orphans of the storm again at the French Cinémathèque – the screening was more or less annoying because it was the tinted print from MoMA (it could be that it contained things we had never seen before…) – but we didn’t have the same feeling again, we saw the film’s Sadeian aspect instead, in brief, its cinematic aspects. But I don’t think we were mistaken when we saw it fifteen years earlier, after Renoir’s film. Of course, one of the two films was devastating and the other one optimistic. You’d have to start from there and see where it gets you.
I now want to add one thing to my three earlier points and say that there can be no political film without memory.
By memory I mean that you have to take a firm stand against Social Democracy, reformism and all that junk, because the only truth these people refuse is the fact that there ever was a past, that things were different. They are completely anti-Marxian: the Marxian method par excellence consisted of searching all the way back to the Assyrians to find out differences, changes. And Marx was going further and further as he grew older. On the other hand Social democracy keeps taking flight in the future; people don’t even have the right the experience the present time anymore. They’re being told that progress must go on, that there is no alternative but to rush down into the abyss of progress until disaster takes place. Growth is infinite, it can’t be stopped. As soon as a glitch occurs, the solution is for growth to resume, to multiply. Therefore we live in “the best of all possible worlds” and all that preceded us was necessarily not as good. This is exactly what Walter Benjamin rebelled against when he said that revolution is “a tiger’s leap into the past.”
So a political film must remind people that we don’t live in “the best of possible worlds,” far from it – something Buñuel already said – and that the present time, stolen from us in the name of progress, is going by and is irreplaceable… That they are ransacking human feelings like they ransack the planet… That the price people must pay, whether for progress or well-being, is far too high, unjustifiable. Not to mention that this system multiplies poverty – and let’s not only talk about the Thirld World, but of the unbelievable things we’ve learned recently about England, the very cradle of capitalism! We should make people feel that the price is too high, that the only thing worth defending is precisely the passing moment, that they should under no circumstances take flight into the future.
So we must come back to what Benjamin said: revolution is “also reinstating very ancient but forgotten things” (Péguy). Films that make you feel this way are political films. The others are truffé, scams.
What people call political cinema comes and goes according to fads… When Comolli came to our place, in Rome, to prepare La Cecilia, he had but one thing on his mind, an obsession. He wanted to convert us to the religion of esthetics, the religious esthetics of Monsignor Dario Fo. Which gave us La Cecilia, Durutti… We must understand once and for all that Hölderlin is a hundred times more political than Jacques Prévert. That’s it! Even if you haven’t discovered yet that Hölderlin was the only European mind, at least the only poet, who, before the threat posed by industrialization and the materalization of that threat, had been able to invent the only thing that might save “Earth’s children,” as he called them and “their cradle, the Earth” from catastrophe. He invented what I’ve called a communist utopia, while at the same time the finest minds of the era were rooting for progress and development.
What part may circumstance play in making political films, and is it possible to escape them?
JMS: A King in New York was truly made under the threat of McCarthyism, which was personally targeted at Chaplin among others. Nothing is more difficult than making militant’s films or militant films.
DH: When Eistenstein was shooting tractor commercials, it was forced upon him by the times he lived in. But it’s also quite dangerous: if you’re going to say that tractors are extremely useful you should also mention the damage they cause. When you see these commercials today, you can’t help thinking that he didn’t follow his work to its conclusions.
The tractor breaks down, don’t forget. It takes Marfa’s political will to start it up again… And in the original version of the film, before they changed the ending as well as the title, the tractor driver chooses to stay home, in his village. We find him in an ox cart filled with hay!
JMS: At least this is a Marxist position.
DH: Eisenstein wasn’t that dumb. There must, however, be a better way to urge people to rebel and take action besises falsifying reality in order to make them believe that they absolutely must rush down a certain path.
JMS: Militant films trap people into emergency again. And we are in an emergency situation: it’s the outcome of the system that invented gas chambers. The current emergency comes from British and French social democracies: the point is not to slaughter Jews anymore but hundred of thousands of animals as a preventive measure to maintain market values. Some jewish people may resent what I’m saying but I see no difference between this slaughter and the Holocaust; it’s the same spirit, the same industrial system. “Der gleiche Geist,” as Hölderlin would have it, invented both the gas chambers and the system. After all there is no need to be a Hindu to figure out that a living being is a living being, whether it’s a Jew or a sheep. In fact the Jews know this very well since they’re the ones who invented the Easter Lamb.
To me Dovjenko’s Arsenal is a great political film – for I see a peasant named Ivan who, alone in an empty field, starts hitting his horse; he’s too exhausted to stop, and suddenly you hear a voice telling him: “Ivan, Ivan, You got the wrong enemy!”
There is a foreword to Webern’s Bagatelles for String Quartet by Schoenberg in which he says: “Every gaze can extend to a poem, every sigh to a novel; but to express a novel with a single gesture, happiness with a single breath, such concentration only exists when sentimentality is equally absent.”
We could use this as a way to define political cinema: totally avoiding what keeps capitalism alive, such as inflation. If, at the esthetic level, you practice the same inflation which fuels capitalist society as well as the world we live in, then there’s no point; you’re just grist for their mill.
Elio Vittorini said this in “Les Lettres Françaises” of June 27, 1947: “This is how I first became politically aware, looking at the spectacle of the society I lived in. This gigantic lie, I knew it well enough. They were all talking about some pre-Fascistic morality — the very morality from which Fascism itself had sprung. They were all leading back to Fascism — or, at best, to moral stagnation and sterility. They were trying to heal the wounds, again and again. They never attacked the disease itself. This is something you could see even if you hadn’t read marx. In each historical era there is a given sum of possible means, a given reserve of means if you’d like. Now in every period of history, every available means have been used, no matter what the avowed morality of the era. Machiavelli already denounced such hypocrisy when he tried to awaken the Prince’s consiousness to what he was doing. Today we have just discovered new means, those of atomic energy. Did we refrain from using them? No. Let us therefore postulate that an era will use every available means at its disposal. But such is the capitalist world that these means are used in total absurdity and hypocrisy. They are endless means, a chaos of means. We live in an era defined by a phantom morality.”
And this is from 1947; imagine what he would say today! Today there are not even phantoms left, nothing but a cynicism that won’t even say its name…
My God! Great political music is not agit-prop or cabaret music, even of one may hear some very sarcastic and funny stuff in cabaret – even then, the only great cabaret songs are Schoenberg’s, after all: there are three of them, they last barely ten minutes.
Where do you find great political music? Well, in Beethoven. In the same line of thought, Renoir’s This Land is Mine is a great political film – It’s also a kind of agit-prop film, by the way. Or, on the other hand, A King in New York is a great political film in the same class as Beethoven’s music.
What Comolli and Monsignor Dario Fo are doing is enormous in that it is already what Brecht was fighting against. His esthetic religion exactly mirrors our banker’s mental attitude in History Lessons.
Brecht’s banker in “The Business of Julius Caesar” is the guy who says: “Zum Volk muss man volksümlich sprechen…” (To the common folk I must speak folk-lorically). And Brecht later said: “I bin nicht tümlich, sagt das Volk” (I am not “lorical,” said the “folk”). On the contrary you must treat people as adults and help them to see and hear, since only when their senses are attuned will their conscience start developing. Contemporary society does the opposite by promoting restrictions, Malthusianism, the ransacking of feelings. The history of peasantry is the same. What did the burgeoning bourgeoisie do? Waging war on peasants. The latest one of these wars ended thanks to the House of Lorraine, then one of the greatest French provinces. People on the other side of the Rhine needed her help to slaughter Alsatian peasants. Later they invented industrialization, intensive agriculture, fertilizers and everything else. What was it all about? Getting rid of the peasantry. In the meantime the bourgeoisie sized power in 1789 and now they’re still trying to eliminate the remaining farmers with regulations and European standards.
Therefore a great political film would not give statistics – we must not fall for that trend from the other side of the Atlantic – but figures instead. In Fury there are figures: how many people have been lynched per week for such and such a length of time. In Too Early, Too Late we have included figures: a third of the population of such and such village is unable to survive… We found these figures in the cahiers de doléance quoted by Engels.
In the controversy between Eisler and Schoenberg, however, the former raises the question of the addressee, the recipient as opposed to laboratory music. He chooses to conduct workers’ choirs, to write stage and film music, songs…
JMS: Eisler didn’t wonder about these things, he knew very well that, on the other side of the wall his music was kept in the dark (“under the bushel”), as he puts it in his interviews with Bunge. He was lucky enough to live in another society, but what happened to him because of ideological reasons also happened to Schoenberg, for less overtly ideological reasons.
I was talking about the twenties, not the German Democratic Republic.
JMS: The quarrels of the twenties were not serious; they were friendly. Eisler rejected his master’s “academic music” and Schoenberg advised him to focus less on politics and more on music. There were more biting comments – in a letter to Kandinsky for instance – which we removed from our film. But Schoenberg was also cozying up to a number of socialists in Vienna, such as Kafka. By the way Benjamin told Brecht one day that Kafka was the Great Socialist Writer, whereas he himself was a catholic writer. Which is not silly at all provided you don’t use the expression “catholic writer” with scorn.
Is this related to what you called Rosselini’s “Catholicism” in an old article?
JMS: We all make youthful mistakes. In any case even that was censored since you couldn’t use the word “catholic” in “Radio-Cinéma-Télévision”, it became “Christian filmmaker.” Above all you couldn’t mention that he was a catholic because it would put Catholicism in question. I only said this because of the fact that he’d made Joan at the Stake, that’s it. But fundamentally Rosselini was not a catholic filmmaker at all; he was a Voltairian filmmaker flirting with the Christian Democratic Party’s ideology and he made propaganda work for De Gasperi. Therefore I was wrong in writing this and they may have been right to censor me…
Let’s say that Brecht was interested in the idea of moral edification…
DH: Whereas Kafka was not!
JMS: … It’s very clear in one of Brecht’s strongest pieces, Saint Joan of the Stockyards. It’s the practice of every Christian virtue, including resignation, charity and the others, before the discovery, as Johanna says, that “Es hilft nur Gewalt, wo Gewalt herrscht” (Only violence helps when violence rules. She’s had it…
At the risk of being a bit pompous, political cinema is the one that ends with saying: “Sickle and hammer, cannons, cannons, dynamite!”
This is where we’re at, there are no alternatives, we shouldn’t be afraid of saying this. But when it happens, it will be very costly.
The world we live in and the humanity we’re part if are ill, terminally ill even, because of this system and this spirit! Therefore if there’s still a possibility for a political film to be made, we’ll need a period of convalescence. So the people who make this film, with that ending, will not stop there. They will add more; by asking Beethoven for a gift, they will add the idea of convalescence.
And if one of these two aspects were to be missing, it would not be a political film.
You must never fear contradictions, otherwise you end up doing what the society we live in does: working at manufacturing robots or legless cripples. Robots on the moral and intellectual level and cripples on the emotional level. Hence you must go against the grain.
I don’t mean to turn my nose at agit-prop films – which by the way I have no right to do so – but I think it would be even harder to make them, and if you’re going to do it by following the fads, it’s really not worth it.
DH: It’s not worth making such films out of anger, either. Rage. Fury.
JMS: Because as Brecht said, rage makes your voice hoarse. “We had no choice, but you must know that we have hoarsened our own voice.” But if we can afford to hoarsen our own voice, you have no right to do it to people whose voice is already hoarse for other reasons… And above all we have no right to make them believe that by applying such and such a miracle formula upon leaving the theater, everything will improve, etc… “How simple! Why didn’t we think of that…” In the words of Delahaye the good are always behind the camera and the bad in front of it.
There is, however, something in your films that has to do with internal necessity. They are anchored in a sense of place, of time; can we still call it an emergency?
JMS: It is different every single time.
In The Bridegroom, the Comedienne and the Pimp, the emergency came from the fact that we were leaving Germany at a time when the police were axing the doors of universities, that we had been treated like dogs for ten years trying to make films, particularly The Chronicle, which was the first project, and the other two: Machorka-Muff and Not Reconciled. We were leaving, that was it, and at that time what was later called “May 68” happened, and there was a slight lag. We were away, and I had no intention, like Cohn-Bendit and others, of coming back to France to end up in jail for a year. So we were away, experiencing a certain nostalgia, even if after all the May events were partly a “chienlit,” (bloody mess) as this joker (De Gaulle) put it… By the way, he had to leave office after the failure of his last referendum a couple of years later, this much is clear, because he had requested crumbs: participation. This was enough to get de Gaulle liquidated! You could laugh at “participation” back then, now it’s back in vogue: workers and employess becoming share-holders… However that was enough to send him back to his home in Colombey, back to “milking his cows” to quote Anna Magnani in The Golden Coach. So much for circumstances…
DH: Of course we react to circumstances, as individuals. But that’s not a good enough reason to insert these individual reactions into a film, for it would bring us back to sentimentality.
Look: when Cézanne painted card players, God knows nobody would have called it political. And suddenly you go to a café in Froidcul, aboce Moyeuvre-Grande in Lorraine, and in this café you see a reproduction of Cézanne’s Card Players. It’s a strange feeling. So you ask the guy behind the counter and he goes: “Yeah, I just liked it, so…”
JMS: It may not be directly political, but I’m fascinated by the fact that Cézanne is entirely a realist. I’ve seen people playing cards for twenty years down by my place. Socially, they are miles apart: they wear jeans, there are a few punks, some are former mill workers, but when I take a good look at how they stand, sit, or move, it’s amazing to realize what a realist Cézanne is. Well, political films start with realism. The kind of realism which, to quote Brecht, starts with the particular, and only once well rooted in it rises to the general. He said: “Let’s start with the unique item, buttoned up/ linked with the general.”
Furthermore in our personal little biography – our “career” which has been progressing tremendously since we can’t even get funding from the CNC any longer! – we’ve had a switchback career. Our film chronology doesn’t match the chronology of the projects: The Chronicle should have been the first and Moses and Aaron the second, but that’s not the way it happened. Machorka-Muff should have been the first.
Making films politically also means doing what Cocteau said: “You must cultivate whatever it is you’re being criticized for: it is what you are.” We made The Chronicle the way we wanted to and not the way we were advised to during the ten years we waited to be able to shoot. First with Curd Jürgens, secondly by giving us twice the budget provided we hire Herbert von Karajan… And we told everyone to get stuffed because we wanted Gustav Leonhardt who wasn’t a star in the cultural industry, at a time when everybody, including musicians and musicologists, would say “What? Who?” and we had to write his name on a small slip of paper. Same thing with Nikolaus Harnoncourt. As for poor Wenzinger, Paul Sacher’s assistant in Basel, he wasn’t better known. They are in the film, together with Leonhardt, and since this had no box office appeal in the cultural industry, no one would give us a dime. But if you make a film politically, which is to say by organizing what you do, that means ignoring casting agents or the box office that tell you what to do and not to do if you want to get funded: without Depardieu no film, without the latest starlet no CNC money, you can’t go to Cannes, etc… Otherwise, on top of not making films politically you don’t get to do what you want. Brecht himself already said so in his foreword to Kuhle Wampe: “Organization cost us much more than die künstlerische Arbeit… the artistic work itself.” According to him it was because the film was a political one.
It’s another answer to the original question: if you want to make political films, you have to organize them yourself instead of relying on institutions, even friendly ones, even dear friends who help a little…
DH: There always comes a time when you have to say: “Hell no! That’s the way it’s going to be and if you don’t want it we’ll take care of it ourselves.” Even writing on a flyer: “This film was turned down by the Selection Committee of the Cannes festival,” which is the absolute truth, can start a deluge of recriminations from friends: “What are you trying to do? Rock the boat?” And we reply: “Listen, if you don’t want any trouble with your milieu – since after all, it’s your milieu, not ours, we’ll take care of it ourselves.”
And finally, since “Straub” has become something of a brand name, since they like us, they give in. But it’s still a struggle.
JMS: Making a film politically means using the goals you need, the length of footage you need, the shooting schedule you need, with the equipment you need. It means paying the crew at least union wage, at the beginning of each week rather than at the end; not accepting ridiculous budget restrictions at a time when commercial productions as a whole is wasting money in expense accounts and useless stuff while they force filmmakers, even prestigious ones like Bertolucci, to use black and white for dailies or inly two lenses for shooting. It happened to us with Lothringen! When we asked for a “Primo” zoom lens they told us it was way too expensive for a short. But we know what and where we want to shoot and what it means technically: if you don’t want to fund it then we’ll pay for it ourselves.
DH: The meaning of the word political is also that of freedom. If I feel I must say this about the Cannes festival, it’s not out of revenge or to rock the boat in any way. It won’t rock anything at all; I do it because some of the younger people must know…
JMS: … that there is no artistic freedom in a capitalist system! That even the so-called cultural institutions only serve the cultural industry of French cinema, and when they chance upon a film that doesn’t cast the latest starlet or Depardieu or God know who else, they’re not interested.
DH: When we designed the posters for Not Reconciled and we brought them to the person in charge at the theater where the film was released she told us: “Ach! Das ist nicht unser Gesmack” (It doesn’t suit our taste). We said: “Very well, we’ll pay for them ourselves.” And at the time we were completely broke and we had to find a thousand marks. Of course you could say it’s still a privilege: a working stiff certainly can’t do that. But strangely enough, when you listen to the longshoremen in Saint-Nazaire, at the time of the great strikes, what they talked about was freedom, being able to not go to work if they want to, being able to change location, “just being able to change wharves whenever we feel like it!” This was the longshoreman status they were fighting for. It’s quite extraordinary that they should be the ones talking about freedom…
JMS: Toscan du Plantier is proof of it! I will only mention two colleagues of ours, both held in high esteem, as they say. One is Syberberg, and the other Benoît Jacquot. Here are two young fellows – they’re not granddaddies, so they should still be able to resist – who both got scammed twenty years apart by the same system: Toscan du Plantier’s. Syberberg wanted to record Wagner’s opera live, in sync sound, and had to give in because Toscan unloaded a recording made in Monte Carlo onto him: he had it in his sound archives and so it was less expensive. So he made a film that has nothing to do with what he wanted! This is not a political way to proceed.
The same thing just happened to Benoît Jacquot, who I believe is shooting La Traviata. He worked with a sound engineer for a few weeks or months since he had sworn to use sync sound; and suddenly he had to switch to playback.
Did the morality alluded to earlier define an individual stance?
JMS: No, I quite simply meant that we live in a world where morality is replaced by cynicism. Cynicism on the walls, in slogans, commercials… You could even go further and call it the liquidation of public morality.
Morality also means knowing how horrible informing is. Now the Italian government passed a law to encourage informers. The result was that Craxi and Andreotti went to the committing magistrate several times a month to tell him: “Wait! I’ll inform on another pal of mine from the Party…” It was supposedly meant to fight the Red Brigades, even some of the Red Brigades informed on people because the law provided they would benefit from mitigating circumstances if they did. They were led to believe they would be treated more leniently. They did the same thing with the Mafia and all the mobsters started informing like crazy. The only one who didn’t is the old guy, the oldest of the Mafiosi, who’s been in a New York jail for almost forty years. They went to him and said “So? What have you got for us, any names?” And he went: “Names? I won’t give you a single one. I’m here, doing my time, and you won’t get a single name from me…”
Here is a guy who still had a sense of morality.
The government that passes such a law is a training ground for cynicism: it demoralizes the nation. When d’Alema – by the way when our Angela from the Pisa Communist Pary cell was selling “L’Unità” on Sunday mornings, “Please, ladies and gentlemen,” when se brought the money back, the secretary was d’Alema – so, when d’Alema, not so long ago, after a few weeks of the war on Milosevic, made a statement published on the full front page of the “Messagero di Roma”: “Usciremo più forti di questa guerra!” (This war will make us stronger), this was what I call public demoralizing.
It’s as statement full of dizzying cynicism and unfathomable stupidity… Furthermore he should have known that no victor ever came out stronger from his victory! Look at the Vietnamese people. To say a thing like this after you went to the Gulf War like a bunch of lackeys, and when you participate in the war against Milosevic, that’s a lack of morality.
As for financial morality, it’s even worse. The morality of the “New Economy” is quite simply that of the supermarket.
It’s striking when you look at workers restoring a courtyard, they bring down the falling stucco, then paint over with four layers of cement, then another kind of cement, two layers of paint, etc… for six months. You’re stuck by the professionalism involved. When they see this, the bourgeoisie, who are not capable of such professionalism in their work any longer, should either laugh in the face of such naïveté or confess to their priests and ask for forgiveness.
There is only one irredeemable crime in the Gospel; it’s the crime against the Spirit. Well it’s been a long time since our society has not only committed this crime but practices and cultivates it day in and day out.
What is the role of theology as you mentioned it earlier in the definition of political cinema?
JMS: What I call theology has to do with God or the gods. One must realize that with civilization, the peasants invented gods. One must realize what the invention of monotheism means, that it is very difficult to do without gods. That it will still take us centuries to get there and that doing without gods like the Voltairian bourgeoisie did is no solution indeed. It’s only cynicism. And you must add that theology – going back to Péguy once again who said: “I am not pious, says God” – means helping people shun phony feelings, the practice of sentimentality and piety. Which is exactly the ersatz in use; in this respect you could again acknowledge that Goebbels won the war. We live in an ersatz society, on every level: water, air, feelings, morality, God, everything. Which is why we invented sociology and shrinks to replace confession.
Are cinematic representation and mimicry part of the same simulacrum, ersatz ideology? And is your insistence on direct sound and the materiality of objects and locations connected to theology?
JMS: You could say it another way: “Back to reality! Back to reality! Back to reality!”
In your relationship to literary texts there are several approaches: some texts are used in their entirety, others in fragments… Is this part of a “political reading”?
JMS: Corneille: it’s the play, I only changed one word. Pavese: these are six dialogues out of many more. Then the second part is only one layer of the novel. The latest film, it’s thirty-nine pages out of four hundred, or History Lessons: thirty pages out of three hundred, etc…
It’s different every time, but the idea is always to avoid descriptive texts. I guess I fundamentally hate literature! The guy who starts trying to illustrate Balzac’s or even kafka’s descriptions in his film has failed from the start. What interest us is not what the writer sees: you can’t illustrate that – it would only hinder the spectator’s imagination – which is what Orson Welles did, by the way. What interests us is how the text is embodied in human beings, dialogues, not the plot. What interests commercial productions is to buy a plot. Then you won’t find a single of the author’s words in the film but you’ve bought yourself a very expensive plot! We take the words and use them as they are. In the Kafka we kept most of the dialogues, ninety percent or more of the first chapter, the only one he published. For the following chapters, sometimes there are only three or four dialogues, since his friend Max Brod, who had promised him to destroy everything, had betrayed him. Apart form the first chapter – “the Stoker” – Kafka considered the work unfinished and in fact it is, you can feel it. It’s no accident if I kept almost everything in the first chapter whereas in the others I kept very little, and tried cautiously and very slowly to figure out which parts held out well, which parts Kafka would certainly have left in. One makes mistakes; it’s the “Stalinist censor” in me, but I’m fairly sure. In all humility…
In the letter to Kandinsky, we censored a few of Schoenberg’s paragraphs or entire sentences, every time something was blacked out. However, what interests us is the writer’s words. From Hölderlin’s “Empedocles” we kept almost everything other than the last scene since it’s barely a draft. These texts do not interest us as literature; otherwise we would have read everything. I’m very far from having read all of Corneille however, or all of Kafka, Hölderlin, Böll, …
It’s a bit different with Böll and also with Brecht: we built something completely different from Brecht’s novel, however every word is his own and we kept what we felt were the most solid parts of the economic analysis and the strongest literary parts.
We’re not interested in competing with literature, but in pushing it to the other side – in going back from Gutenberg to the times before the printing press, when there was no TV; when people gathered around the fire at night to tell stories. Let’s call it going from a writer-based civilization to an oral tradition that has been totally repressed.
Walter Benjamin devoted a text entitled “The Narrator” (Der Erzähler) – which he translated into French himself – to the contrast between oral narratives and novels at the level of the exchange of experiences, of community and solitude.
JMS: really? You know him better than I do. There’s no doubt, however, that writers are condemned to individuality in our capitalist society, and in others too. In the alternative social experiment, on the other side of the wall, in the so-called popular democracies, artists were still condemned to individuality even when they dreamed otherwise. If they weren’t individuals, they couldn’t be artists. It is the same society that doomed Lenin to becoming more and more of an individual – this is what he meant when he said his political work didn’t allow him to listen to music. In the world we live in, since human beings are limited and the world is what it is, you can’t do three things at the same time, not even two. We’re doomed. This is what Schoenberg meant, or close enough, when he told Eisler, “Instead of getting involved in politics so much you’d better concentrate on your work.” It’s a provocative statement, a bit… à la Poujade but it’s a fact, you can’t simultaneously be involved in politics and make so-called esthetic objects or works of art or films.
DH: You can let things mature, however. You were talking about circumstances earlier. When you’re obsessed with massacres and peasants as we were and still are, when you finally make Too Early, Too Late, it’s precisely because all of this resurfaces in a certain way once it’s found the appropriate form.
JMS: This is the form we chanced upon through a triple encounter: a first trip to Egypt for Moses and Aaron, followed by a second trip, and then the return to Italy and the discovery of a book written by two people who had spent a year in one of Nasser’s concentration camps…
DH: Plus the cahiers de doléance from which Engels takes his figures. All of this, the French part of the film, ends with the inscription “Peasants will rise,” partly masked by a pole. When the film was completed in 1981, they told us peasant revolts were all but impossible. Now you can see what’s happening.
It’s the opposite of a film that would be following fads…
JMS: Even in good faith! At the moment I like A Movie Like the Others better than some films that were made by the group calling itself Dziga Vertov. Dear Jeannot would certainly not agree since he’d rather conceal this film, but at least it’s my opinion. Here’s a guy who tried to be humble at a very precise moment in time and just tried to monitor something without imposing his grid of interpretation. He was really within the moment and within the fashion of the time, but he functioned without being grist for the mill of fashion.
I believe I discovered The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach in Locarno in August 1968, when Buache picked it up along with other militant films from the May 68 movement, which brought out some contrasts. I remember Jean-Luc telling us he had issues with the film in relation to Germany, what came after Bach, Nazism, etc…
JMS: That’s because he had trouble looking at a Marxian object. I don’t say Marxist, but Marxian, since, as we discovered much later, the intellectual process of the film is really the same as young Marx’s. So the film is Marxian by chance. Still, that’s not what he told us. He told me: “I really should talk to you about your film.” And then he said…
DH: “Well here we go: during the first part I thought ‘No! This won’t do at all…’ During the second part I thought: ‘Yes! This is what we should do,’ and during the third part once again ‘This won’t do’…”
JMS: What he meant was: you should add a voice-over, either less or more content plus a voice-over providing political comments on the situation. At first he thought: “You should have done it, “ then during the second part: “No, no, he’s right not to do what I would have done” and during the last part: “No! No! I was right all along…”
Personally I wasn’t saying anything, I was a bit shy and I didn’t feel like joking. I looked at him and asked with a faint smile: “So what would you want me to do, put ‘Everything is political’ at the end?” And he said: “You see, maybe that would have been enough.”
Now, there already is a film that ends with the words “Everything is grace.” And since I would have never made Chronicle if it hadn’t been for Diary of a Country Priest, for different reasons, I wasn’t going to end a film with “Everything is political” just to please Jeannot!
Furthermore everyone knows that everything is political. So it’s just crap.
I believe political films are made by people who don’t try to be too clever…
DH: “Don’t be too clever for the sake of being clever” it’s the title of a small Glenn Gould piece we heard this morning…
JMS: When Lang, who was half Jewish, from Vienna, after years of silence, after ending up on the other side of the Atlantic, tried to assimilate American speech and reality as he was capable of doing, with daily patience, through dictionaries and research, finally made Fury, there you have it: the film does not convey the impression of a gentleman trying to be clever, but rather the crystallization of x years of experience, work and discoveries. When Chaplin made A King in New York, he wasn’t trying to be clever. When the author of “Durutti” makes Durutti you can see the result for yourself. It becomes mental vacuity, deficienza… So what’s the point?
There is so much bullshit in the world that making a political film should at least not add more to it. There are times even when you could say that one should work hard enough to be able to make a film that isn’t harmful to people – since everything they buy, everything they’re told is harmful to them.
First, you should work on yourself, to avoid self-complacency, and, ultimately, the so-called originality.
Isn’t the prospect of reinstating an oral culture one of the political projects of your films?
JMS: It sounds very flattering they way you just put it, but you shouldn’t believe it’s done systematically or consciously, it came about slowly. It’s meant to help people dream of something that’s been stifled, eliminated by industry in general and the cultural industry in particular… To hear something that not only relates to the sense of community, but also which they knew nothing about. When people sent letters to a German TV station after seeing History Lessons without knowing it came from a novel by Brecht, asking, “What is this text? What’s the title?” we were rather pleased. For the same reason I said Bachfilm was dedicated to farmers in the Bavarian forest who never had a chance to hear Bach in their catholic churches, who never went to a concert. Or – which is when all the Bonitzers and all the others accused me of militant voluntarism – that Corneille was made for the workers of Renault.
DH: Take almost illiterate people such as Angela, or tillers, bricklayers or even construction engineers and give them a text like the one in our latest film…
JMS: Whether or not they know Vittorini, it’s not a factor at that point!
DH: … and they start claiming the text for themselves – because quite frankly all the stuff about alienation effect and so on is pretty silly! There can be no film in which the text is more a part of the people than our films! Of course, after months of work, the film enters their nervous system. It’s a kind of popular culture, the kind everybody was talking about during the infamous “Pop” years, the one nobody achieved because it’s too difficult, too lengthy.
JMS: Since the French cinema industry, even when it remains at the level of a cottage industry will not allow it, because “Time is Money”.
DH: It’s the caste system; you’re up against a wall. When Cannes turned Workers, Peasants down, it wasn’t only because we didn’t have Depardieu or the latest starlet. It was because they knew immediately – they have an infal-lible sixth sense for these things – that our protagonists are not among the “beautiful people,” that they didn’t belong to their world. Aumont said this much, what they talk about “is not interesting.” They’re not interesting people. These are the people we make popular culture with, which is difficult since they’re working people, they have a day job. Therefore if things work out it’s because they really want them to, they want to discover something else. On the other hand they show up at 6 p.m. for rehearsal exhausted and it’s hard. But they still bring solutions that none of the “beautiful people” would have thought of since they’re not trapped in a preset mentality.
It sounds like young Marx’s version of communism, when people hunt in the morning and write poetry in the afternoon…
JMS: It would be great!
JMS: The “bastard” only said that because he would never have been caught hunting….
He was thinking of the Neolitic age, gathering, hunting and pottery…
JMS: Beyond the Assyrians again!
DH: What makes cinema great is the collective work, something it shares with theater; only theater is made by an elite. They don’t try to work with people from the street, it’s even worse than in film! Collective work is what makes it fascinating. That’s where the relationship with politics lies.
JMS: You don’t suddenly get the urge one fine morning, you don’t go: “Why don’t we go back to oral culture?” It’s the same for anybody in any similar line of work. It comes perhaps from Farrebique, Diary of a Country Priest or The River or even, why not, from Gance’s Captain Fracasse, since it makes you feel that something’s happening…. Or from a couple of Michel Simon’s lines in Boudu Saved from Drowning: “What do you bloody care, you old fart!”
What was your evolution since your first films regarding the question of professional versus non-professional actors?
JMS: In Nicht versöhnt we really had one actor who couldn’t spell his name and two or three more who couldn’t read the newspaper. In the Kafka film it was a bit different but there’s still one: the doorman with his lantern. But it’s really a mix since on the other hand you have Mario Adorf, Alfred Edel, Laura betti or Libgart Schwarz.
Some of the films have a mix of actors and non-actors, others don’t. But it wasn’t designed this way, it depends on the characters. Obviously for the part of the Uncle in the Kafka, it was better to have an actor rather than a hick, it would not have worked out. The actor is an ersatz of bourgeois in a way, but a bourgeois wouldn’t have been right either in this particular case. And in Nicht versöhnt, the mother after all is not an actress; she’s an old lady we met in our elevator, she’s not an intellectual. We found Ferdi on a street in Cologne; he was throwing his bicycle on a truck that his father was loading with barrels of Dortmund beer.
Did you pick him because of his looks?
JMS: When you choose actors, it’s always because you fall in love with them for whatever reason.
The old lady we met in the elevator was always grumbling when it broke down; two hours later we offered her the part, but we had previously made a little trip to the Berliner Ensemble. We sere set on casting an actress for the part of the old lady so she could “recite” the past, a bit like the lines uttered in Pierrot le fou: “Forty centuries marveling at us!” or “The parade of centuries…” In her case it wasn’t the centuries but the economic crisis and the arrival… of the people called upon to solve it. We had seen la Weigel a few times on stage at the Berliner Ensemble, in three of four of Brecht’s plays, we liked her as a woman and as an actress so we went to see her, a year before the shoot. She read it and suddenly told us: “Why don’t you insist on having a professional actress play the part? Actors are always bad in films. Why don’t you try a non-professional actress?” So we said: “Thank you very much.”
So you see, we had to meet someone that legendary to begin with so we could be told that all actors are bad, we really didn’t expect it from her. Someone like la Libgart Schwarz or Peter Stein would never have told us something like this. That proves that Weigel had certain meaningful personal experiences and had learnt something from living and working with Brecht. It’s the last thing we expected from her. Incidentally after ten minutes we thought she was too young for the part…
What people see isn’t the film, the reality of the matter of the film; they always project themselves into it, at least these people. It’s very hard to perceive only what’s on the screen, what you hear and what you see. It took me twenty years and sometimes even now when I see a film I hadn’t seen for twenty years I still realize I hadn’t really “seen” it the first time. So when people see Angela Nugara in Sicilia! They like her, “Oh, she’s breathing with her stomach… and since she’s a mother…. She’s great, great!” But the same woman in the other film (Workers, Peasants), they don’t like her all, even though technically she’s made a nice little step forward. She had been thinking on her own, for two years between the films… We didn’t have to argue, it just happened and she had made progress, instinctive progress you could say.
But no one notices it: they’re not interested. Even Vittorio, since he doesn’t have a bicycle anymore and gave up biking, it’s the same thing, they’re not interested.
I was struck when I saw my first films after my amnesty in France, after eleven years in exile, for instance La Bête humaine, at the French Cinémathèque. It was already a time when only students would attend screenings, our colleagues didn’t come anymore or very seldom, nor would the educated bourgeoisie. So there were these more or less tardy students, and when Renoir came up on the screen, with his acting style, they started sneering at him. And I thought: “My God! Nothing has changed much!”, since after La Chambre Noire, my Ciné-Club in Metz, I started a small 16mm film society at the Nancy University, with two screenings per month. When we showed Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne, guys were constantly sneering until someone would shut them up. Even during Hitchcock’s Suspision or Dmytryck’s Give us this Day.
* This interview was conducted on March 19, 2001 in Paris at the request of the Pompidou Center. It was to appear in a publication devoted to the theme of “Cinema and Politics” scheduled for June-July 2001. The person in charge of the event was Sylvie Astrik. However the programmer of the series and the management of the Pompidou’s Center’s Library of Public Information (BPI) demanded various cuts in the interview, specifically the parts involving the criticism against J.-L. Comolli and Dario FO and the comparison between the industrial extermination of animals and the Jewish genocide. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet refused any censorship for the statements they had made, reviewed and assumed. So the text was rejected by the very institution that had requested it. Jacques Rancière withdrew his contribution to the publication. The interview found a home in the August 2001 issue of the journal “Hors Champ” that was on sale during the Locarno film festival. It caused a series of rumors regarding the Straub’s “anti-semitism” which briefly surfaced in an article by Olivier Séguret published in “Libération”. The newspaper denied the filmmakers any right to reply. The letters (signed by Louis Séguin, Anne-Marie Faux and François Albera) were published in “Hors Champ” No 7 (Fall-winter 2001-2002).